Stars do heartfelt show in TV's `Tribute to Heroes'

40 broadcast, cable outlets carry two-hour benefit

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 22, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A little more than a week after a deadly attack on American soil, entertainment giants joined in an unprecedented patriotic broadcast carried by all the networks.

The day was Dec. 15, 1941, eight days after Japanese aviators bombed Pearl Harbor. Stars with names such as Bogart, Garland, Stewart and Welles volunteered to play roles without pay in the radio broadcast of a fact-based drama honoring the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Similar impulse, different age. Last night, a two-hour telethon carried on about 40 cable and broadcast channels - including those dedicated to music, movies, and Spanish-language shows - sought to raise money to assist those people directly affected by the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11. "America: A Tribute to Heroes" was shown live without commercials throughout the country.

Among the featured stars, spanning a variety of fields of the performing arts and a variety of generations of performers, were Limp Bizkit and Willie Nelson, Will Smith and Clint Eastwood, Mariah Carey and Jim Carrey. Top celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks also took part. They all appeared on candle-encircled sets that appeared commandeered from the WB show Charmed, about a trio of witches.

The faces of Jack Nicholson, Kurt Russell, Whoopie Goldberg, Salma Hayek, Cuba Gooding Jr., Adam Sandler, Andy Garcia were visible answering contributors' calls, as though they were part of a fantasy PBS pledge drive. Top-drawer figures - George Clooney, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Muhammad Ali - took part in stripped-down style. No captions or booming announcers heralded their presence.

"We all feel the need to do something, no matter how small, or symbolic," Hanks said.

Bruce Springsteen led off with a gentle version of his haunting anthem from the 1970s, "My City of Ruins;" a few minutes later, U2 performed, live from London, its anguished song "Walk On." Shown in black and white, the Irish rockers sang the refrain:

And I know it aches

How your heart it breaks

You can only take so much

On paper, with all those stars volunteering, it might have resembled an updated USO tour headlined by Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters during World War II, as though Americans citizens were the troops. In reality, the tone of the program was unrelentingly heartfelt, fitting for the tragedy of the event, but also at times making the broadcast tough to absorb. There were numerous testimonials about people believed dead from their loved ones and from the stars.

Reports suggest an unheard-of level of cooperation by network executives, who also enlisted their counterparts at cable networks, recording studios and telecommunications firms to make it all work. The program was broadcast live and on sound stages in New York City and Los Angeles.

"In this case, it's not your standard `How can we make money or get publicity?'" said Joe Saltzman, a scholar of popular culture and journalism at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about prime-time programming.

Last night's performances sought to raise money for a special United Way of New York account.

Typically, United Way funds are distributed in the same communities where they are generated. But the money raised last night - and from the continuing appeal on a Web site, www.tributetoheroes.org - is to be directed to aid people personally affected by the terrorist strikes, no matter where they live. United Way is also contributing its administrative costs for the fund.

"The funds that are collected are going to be given as a restricted donation to the Sept. 11th Fund," said Kathy Walling, vice president of communications for the United Way of New York City. "This is just for victims and their families. Wherever the victims are from, that's how far reaching it will be."

Norman Corwin was one of radio's most prominent writers and producers in the 1940s, a peer of Orson Welles. On Dec. 7, 1941, he heard of the Pearl Harbor attack as his train to California approached Kansas City, Mo. On his lap lay, unfinished, a script he had been asked to write honoring the Bill of Rights that would be aired by all four radio networks - NBC Red, NBC Blue, CBS and Mutual.

Corwin, 91, recalled yesterday that he couldn't reach New York by phone, so he sent a telegram to network officials: Should he continue to California? Should the play go on, despite the national tragedy? Hours later, back on the train, the networks relayed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's message: "It's more important, now more than ever, that it go on."

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